A Year on the Road
It was a Sunday morning in October of 2015. We went to a wedding the night before and I think I already knew then, but it was over breakfast at my favorite spot in town that she said we needed to break up. I walked out in the middle of the meal because I didn’t want to cry in public. I guess it had been a long time coming.
She said I hadn’t done enough to take steps towards starting a family. We’d been together over five years, the longest I’ve ever been with anyone, so I guess I can see what she means.
I’m not mad at her. I’m mad at me.
I know things changed but I’m not sure when.
I guess you’d call this regression
It’s a Saturday night and it’s the weekend after New Year’s in 2017. I’ve made almost $300, already breaking my record for the most money earned from Uber trips in one day. It’s 2:55am and I’m in West Philly when I think, “Let’s do just one more trip and see if we can crack $300 in a single night.”
I get a trip request and pull up to the bar where I’m picking them up. I spot a guy who’s holding up the wall, spitting into a sewer grate. “If that’s my guy, I am 100% certain he’s going to be the first person to throw up in my car.” Someone else gets in my car instead. I breathe a premature sigh of relief.
“Yeah, we’re just waiting on those two.” He gestures to the guy who can barely stand and the smaller guy who appears to be coaching him.
By the end of the trip, I am correct in my assessment. It feels like a lesson in hubris.
It’s been two months since the breakup and I’m out at an event in the city. My Kickstarter failed to fund a few hours ago.
I took the train into the city, so I have to decide if I want to leave now or if I want to stay another hour and a half and catch the last train instead.
She’s friendly and cute and people want to play a new game, so I stay. We all have fun. I spend a solid hour laughing with everyone. I haven’t had a good time like this in months.
I give her my number. I can’t tell if I’m hitting on her or not, but I give her my number anyway. I never give my number out.
It’s a Thursday night and the bars are almost closed. I don’t know what month it is anymore. I have to check the calendar to know what month it is, most of the time.
When you get a trip request, it tells you a few pieces of information like how far away they are from you in minutes and miles and what their passenger rating is. You don’t know where they’re going until you pick them up. You’ve got about ten seconds to accept the request or ignore it.
This one has the lowest passenger rating I’ve ever seen and every instinct is screaming at me not to accept it. I almost never decline trip requests unless they’re grossly far away, so I accept it against my better judgment.
When he has to help his friend get his backpack off and into my trunk, it doesn’t set off internal alarms like it should. When his friend passes out against the door, I don’t notice because he’s too busy telling me how to run my business that he knows nothing about. It’s surprising when his friend throws up in his sleep, all over my seat and my door, but it really shouldn’t be.
I should know better by now.
I convinced myself that I’m brave enough for all of this
I was playing online games with some friends when I told them about the breakup. One of them told me how when he had a major breakup, the next six months turned into a blur he still doesn’t remember. I told him I don’t think that’s going to happen to me, but that’s exactly what happened to me.
I know I was applying to tons of jobs. I know I traveled to SXSW and to PAX with my games. I know I totaled my car in a parking lot in April. It’s winter and then it’s spring and suddenly it’s May and I don’t really know how I got here.
It feels like I’ve fallen off of a cliff in slow motion, but there’s no bottom waiting for me and now I’m just drifting in space. It’s drowning without the dying.
It’s a Saturday in Center City and someone who can barely stand up gets put into my car.
“Is he okay?” I ask.
“Oh. No, he’s trashed. I’m fine but he’s trashed,” she says. I can’t tell if she’s a friend or a significant other but I get the impression she should be neither.
“Are you sure he’s going to be okay for the trip? It’s a lot of money if you throw up in an Uber.”
“It’s fine. It’s his account and he’s paying for it.”
I confirm the destination with her, since it’s pretty apparent that he can’t speak. It’s out in Bristol, a 40 minute jaunt straight up the freeway into the desolate northeast. I’ve never kicked anyone out of my car before, so I don’t.
He passes out almost immediately and for that I’m grateful. It’s less likely that he’ll throw up in my car if he’s asleep. I say “less likely” and not “impossible,” because…well, you know.
We arrive at his house. “Hey, you’re here.” Nothing. “Hey friend, you’re home. This is your house.” Still nothing. “HELLO? YOUR UBER IS OVER AND IT’S TIME FOR YOU TO GO INSIDE AND GET TO BED.” No response. I turn on the car light and I get as loud as I can without actually screaming. I get out of the car and open his door to shake him by the shoulder. I shine my phone’s flashlight in his eyes. “IF YOU DON’T GET OUT, I’M GOING TO CALL 911.” He doesn’t move. I call 911.
“911, where’s your emergency?”
I give them the address.
“What’s your emergency?”
“Well, I’m an Uber driver and someone is presumably so drunk that they can’t get out of my car.”
“Do they need an ambulance?”
[Internally] “YOU’RE THE EMERGENCY DISPATCHER. THIS IS LITERALLY YOUR ONLY JOB HERE. YOU TELL ME!”
[Actually] “I’m not sure. They’re still breathing, but they won’t respond to voice, being shaken, or my flashlight. I can’t tell if they have alcohol poisoning and I don’t know if they’ve had any other drugs. I’m just their Uber driver.”
“We’ll send an officer out and they can make a decision there.”
It takes three police officers, two to remove him from the car in a barely-conscious state where he knows that keys are a thing that exist but he’s not sure which pocket they’re in and one to direct traffic while getting the story from me, to resolve the situation. The last thing I hear as they get inside the house is, “Of course he’s on the third floor!”
I ask if I can leave. I don’t stay long enough to know if they ultimately called an ambulance or not, because this is so far above my pay grade.
The late nights and the long drives start to get to me.
I’m just so tired
It’s July and I’ve had a car again for about a month. I’ve lost track of how many jobs I’ve applied to. Neither event I went to earned me enough money for a security deposit to move out. I’m still living at my ex’s house because I don’t have anywhere else to go. I’m constantly either about to run out of money or taking out loans to keep paying for the laser every month.
Among all the jobs I applied for, I submitted an application to be an Uber driver. It gets accepted and on July 15th, 2016 I’m cleared to be a driver.
Days later, I’m told that I’ve stayed too long and my ex is finally kicking me out. I have two weeks to get a storage unit for all of my things, find a home for the laser, and find a new place to live. It feels impossible but everything feels impossible these days.
I pick up two guys in Manayunk and they’re headed to Sugarhouse Casino in Center City. We talk about games and stuff for the half hour trip out there. It’s mostly idle chitchat but they’re amiable and pleasant.
I drive around the city for a few hours, moving on with my night as I usually do.
A few hours later, I get a trip request for Sugarhouse Casino. I accept it. It shows up as the same name. I wonder if it’s the same guys.
It is. This has now only ever happened twice. It’s a small thing, but something about it just feels miraculous to me.
I think a lot about how the moment to moment chaos influences how my night is gonna go. If I spent a few seconds more or less taking a break or if I make a right instead of a left or a number of other small changes, I’m likely to get a completely different set of trips for the night. Since I pick up close to where I drop someone off, one small decision could drastically change who I’m going to get and where I’m going to end up. I could end up in Delaware instead of New Jersey. I could avoid or inadvertently end up with someone who’s going to throw up in my car. Minor decisions have the potential to have major consequences we can’t possibly know in advance.
Yet here I am, picking up the same person twice in one night.
I ask him how his luck was and he laughs and says, “Terrible!”
My body feels rejected and I can’t say that I blame it.
My heart keeps saying stay young.
My lower back seems to disagree.
Some friends in NJ agree to let me stay with them for a month. I sleep on their couch. Sometimes I stay with the person I’ve been seeing, but that situation is getting more and more unstable and it’s not doing me any favors.
Some whirling combination of driving so much, anxiety, and sleeping on a couch every night leave me with back pain that feels like a hot hook jabbing through my spine and into my ribs. Later I learn that stress itself can cause pain like this. It’s another year before I learn what “Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria” is. Ice packs and ibuprofen don’t help with either.
One month turns into several and I’ve overstayed my welcome trying to save up the money for a place of my own. I’m reminded of Hofstadter’s Law, where, “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.” It feels like I’m living a paradox.
In November, the person I’m seeing breaks things off and my friends kick me out. I can’t blame either. My parents offer to let me move into their house, so I do.
“Can I ride up front?” he asks, and something is off about his tone but I don’t notice immediately. It becomes obvious in retrospect. Everything about this becomes a lesson in retrospect.
“How’s your day going so far?” I ask. I ask this to everyone. It’s polite.
He tells me he saw some family and it was nice. He compliments my appearance in a way that makes me uncomfortable.
I try to get him to talk about anything else. It’s going to be a 20 minute drive and I already want it to be over.
He tells me I look 23. I tell him I’m 32, but awkwardly just say thanks. He tells me I look perfect. I’m crawling out of my skin.
He asks me if any of my passengers have ever touched me before. He tells me he’s getting hot. He asks me what my defense mechanism is against passengers who might hit on me and I just say that I ignore them the best I can and get them to their destination as fast as possible so they can get out of my car.
We get to his parking lot and he leans half over and makes a smooching sound, trying to kiss me, and says, “Hey cute boy,” at me. I cement myself against my door and half-shout, “Please don’t talk to me like that.” I lock the doors when he gets out and drive away as he’s standing outside the driver’s side door of my car waiting for who knows what.
I find a nearby shopping center to park in and report the incident. It’s the only time in almost a year that Uber has ever called me to get more details about an incident. I want to throw up in the parking lot.
I spent this year as a ghost and I’m not sure what I’m looking for
Did you know you can run out of people to swipe on in dating apps? I didn’t, until I found out firsthand on all three that I was on in the same night. It’s late in cuffing season, but I delete them all a week later. I’m living on a mattress on the floor in an extra room at my parents’ house and I probably shouldn’t be dating anyone anyway.
I’d been going to an event in the city every week for almost four years, but that venue doesn’t exist anymore. I stop going. I can’t tell if it’s because that’s a good night for me to work, if it’s because she still goes, or if it’s something else, but I just can’t bring myself to go anymore.
I give up on a lot of things. It’s liberating. Maybe if I stop poking at my wounds, they can heal.
2,684 trips. That’s how many times in a year I pick up strangers in my car and get them from where they are to where they need to be. I’ve taken thousands of people thousands of miles in and around Philadelphia. I can’t tell if that’s a lot or not.
I like to think all of this has somehow made me kinder. I’ve held strangers’ hair back while they threw up on the side of the road. I’ve given out free rides to people having much harder days than I have. I’ve given my dinner away to the homeless. You see people suffering in ways much worse than you and I think that can only make you kinder or colder. Maybe it’s a choice and maybe it isn’t, but I don’t want to be colder.
I think when bad things happen to you, you either get to become what you needed then or you become closer to what you hated about what happened to you.
I’m doing my best to be what I needed.
I spent the winter writing songs about getting better.
And if I’m being honest, I’m getting there
It’s the 4th of July and instead of driving for the holiday, I choose to spend it at a party with friends. I’ve paid off all of the business loans I’d taken out and I’ve paid all of my personal debts by now. My credit cards have a zero balance and my savings account doesn’t anymore. I feel like I’ve earned this.
We drink all day, we eat amazing, grilled food, and we stay out on the deck talking until the wee hours of the night.
For the first time in a long time, I feel like maybe things are going to be okay.
* * * lyrics by The Wonder Years from the song “Came Out Swinging” * * *